A photograph of some boys on a wall outside a five-storey brick mill building
Historic image of the front of the site after it had been adapted for use as a maltings. © Shropshire Archives PH/S/13/M/1/9 C

A history of innovation and evolution

Introduction

The Main Mill at Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings is the first iron-framed building in the world.  The pioneering frame is what makes this an internationally important industrial heritage site.

Known as the grandparent of skyscrapers, the Main Mill opened in 1797 as a purpose-built flax mill. Since then, the site has grown and been repurposed and adapted many times. It was a maltings from 1897 to 1987, but also served as a temporary army barracks during the Second World War.  After the maltings closed in 1987, the future of the site and its important buildings became increasingly uncertain.

Derelict for many years, the big challenge was to identify a future for the site that protected and conserved the historic buildings while providing it with a viable and sustainable economic future.

Historic England bought the freehold for the Flaxmill Maltings in 2005 and later partnered with Shropshire Council and the Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings to save these extraordinary buildings and bring them back to life.  Under Historic England’s ownership, the site is evolving into a new workspace and a place for communities from near and far to celebrate and explore the past.

A new factory for Shrewsbury

In the late 1700s Shrewsbury already had a long tradition of textile finishing and trading, with the wool trade being a source of prosperity for some local merchants.  Two brothers, Thomas and Benjamin Benyon, were among those who prospered the most. As the wool trade began to change and shrink, they decided to diversify into the linen business, which uses flax as the raw material.

In 1793, the Benyon brothers formed a partnership with John Marshall of Leeds who was pioneering the mechanisation of flax-spinning. They invested in mills in Leeds, however there was a serious fire at one of the mills, which was a common problem at the time due to the timber frames that they were made with. The three partners decided that a solution to this problem needed to be found.

The Benyons and Marshall chose a site in Ditherington, to the north of Shrewsbury town centre, for their next mill.  It was to be built next to the Shrewsbury Canal, which was due to open before the new mill would be complete. The canal would make it easier for coal to be delivered to the boiler houses which generated the steam for the engines.

In 1796 they brought Charles Bage in to build the new mill. Although Bage was also a wine merchant, his main occupation was as a surveyor and he was part of a circle of scientific engineers, industrialists and intellectuals in Shropshire at the time.

The partnership now complete, the Benyons and Marshall would use Bage’s innovative design and engineering skills, and his industry contacts to find a way to build a fireproof mill in Shrewsbury.

A pioneering design

The new mill would be built to Charles Bage’s designs. Before construction began, he used his own research and that of others to test the strength of cast iron and the structure of the frame that he had designed.  When Bage was satisfied that the plans were right, the mill was built.

The innovative new five-storey Main Mill building had an internal frame made entirely from cast iron. The frame was made up of three rows of cast iron columns and cast iron beams extended between them. Brick arches were built between the beams to form the floors and wrought iron tie rods prevented these arches from springing apart. Together this made a fireproof structure.

The columns and the beams for the frame were cast in Shrewsbury at William Hazeldine’s new foundry.  Hazeldine had a reputation for quality – he also supplied Thomas Telford with components for the world’s first suspension bridge built over the Menai Strait some years later.

As well as creating a fireproof structure, the strength that iron gave to the Main Mill was the leap needed to allow buildings to be built taller. Now described as the grandparent of the modern skyscraper, the Main Mill is the first known multi-storey cast iron-framed building in the world.

The flax mill years

Shrewsbury’s pioneering new flax mill opened in 1797. For nearly a century the site operated as a state-of-the-art steam-powered flax mill.  Its main purpose was to spin linen thread from flax.

The flax business thrived and the mill was a success. The site began to expand and Marshall bought out the Benyons and Bage in 1804.  Marshall added even more buildings over time, and the flax mill eventually became Shrewsbury’s largest employer.

The pace, hours and nature of the work was dictated by the steam-driven machines and the profit-making system, this combination made for difficult working conditions.

The workforce was made up of men, women and children. Children accounted for more than a third of the workers. In the mill’s first couple of decades, some of the children who worked there came from workhouses under the Parish apprenticeship system. These children lived on site in the Apprentice House.

As textile markets changed towards the end of the 19th century and linen fell in popularity, the business declined and eventually the mill closed in 1887.

The maltings years

After the flax mill closed, a new use needed to be found for the site. The complex stood empty for over a decade before being converted into a maltings by William Jones (Maltsters) Ltd and reopening in 1897-8.

The designs for the maltings conversion were done by Henry Stopes, a leading authority on malt and malting and one of the foremost designers of the time. And, just like the flax mill one hundred years earlier, the new facility was state-of-the-art.

Adapting the site from a flax mill to a maltings meant major alterations; two thirds of the large windows, which had let in light for the flax mill workers, were blocked up and the rest were made smaller, the boiler houses were demolished, a timber hoist tower on the New South Engine House and the Jubilee Tower were added, and the large pyramid-roofed Kiln was built.

When the site’s conversion was complete, the new purpose was to produce malt for the brewing industry from barley.

During the maltings period, huge quantities of barley were steeped in water and then laid out to germinate on the vast floors of the Main Mill and the Cross Mill buildings. The new, smaller windows with their shutters helped the maltings workers to control light, humidity and ventilation, creating the conditions needed to germinate the barley.

When it was ready, the germinated barley was moved to the Kiln for heating which would complete its transformation to malt – an essential ingredient for beer brewing. Reaching temperatures of up to 220°F (105°C) the kilning process took between three and four days. It halted germination and removed moisture so that the malt could be stored.

As technologies changed and purpose-built maltings facilities were set up, the traditional floor malting in Shrewsbury could not compete and in 1987 the last malt was made and the maltings closed its doors.  The site is now subject to a major restoration, for more information please visit the restoration page.

The war years

During the Second World War the site was used by the military as a Light Infantry Barracks and training centre.  The complex was used to house soldiers who were drafted into Shrewsbury with the malting floors being used for sleeping accommodation.

Little is known about this period. The Friends of the Flaxmill Maltings volunteers are busy researching this area with more and more being discovered each year, so look out for more information.

In the post-war years malting resumed at the site.

The buildings

The Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings is an internationally significant industrial heritage site. The Flaxmill Maltings site is made up of eight listed buildings, including three  at Grade I, two at Grade II* and three at Grade II.

Listing marks and celebrates a building’s special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations. You can find out more about how listing works and what the gradings mean on the Historic England website.

The name of each building below will take you to its listing entry on the Historic England website.

Main Mill – Grade I

Built in 1797, five storeys tall and the first iron-framed building in the world.

Cross Mill – Grade I

Re-built in 1812, four storeys tall.

Flax Warehouse – Grade I

Built c1810, four storeys tall.

The Dye and Stove House – Grade II*

Built in the 1850’s.

Apprentice House – Grade II*

Built c1810.

The Kiln – Grade II

Built in 1898.

Stables (-plus remains of Packing Warehouse) Grade II

Built soon after the Main Mill.

Smithy and Office – Grade II

Built soon after the Main Mill.

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